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Losing the Freedom to Form Unions

The National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that a range of professionals, estimated at 8 million workers, are now deemed "supervisors" and thus lose all protections under labor law. What this means is that an estimated 8 million workers who say a positive thing about unions can be fired at will by their bosses seeking to eliminate unions. The AFL-CIO has more here on the legal details.

This action just adds to the total of 32 million workers in the United States denied protection under labor laws; this means 25% of the workforce have no right to form a union under federal, state or local law (see this GAO report and this ARAW summary). This includes supervisors, agricultural workers, domestic workers, independent contractors, managers and a range of others. Millions of public employees are excluded from labor law protections and depend on state law for whether they have any labor rights.

Human Rights Watch has analyzed these exclusions as violations of international human rights laws covering labor rights. See also this report by Rep. George Miller of the Committee on Education and Workforce on NLRB stripping workers of rights, including denying organizing rights to disabled workers, graduate teaching assistants, and many temporary workers.

While state leaders can't do much to protect the union rights of supervisors denied rights by the NLRB, they actually can do quite a bit for other workers not covered by federal labor law, especially by expanding public employee union rights. An upcoming Dispatch will focus more broadly on how states can help workers by protecting their right to organize.

In the meantime, though, it is important to also put in perspective what rulings like this mean. Attacks on organized labor are not simply assaults on workers, but also assaults on the progressive movement -- something that the rightwing of American politics has made a staple of campaigns in recent years, tarring and feathering everyone who has the audacity to use resources of money or people to oppose their far-right agenda, from the AFL-CIO to trial lawyers to George Soros.

Earlier this year, the Progressive States Network issued a report "Governing the Nation From the Statehouses" that devoted a large section to The Structural Assault on Progressive Power. These assaults range from assaults on the courts through tort "reform" and limitations on access to courts to privatization efforts that take money from union workers and give it to corporate cronies to the dismantling of pension funds to all-out assaults on progressive funding sources: labor unions, environmental groups, trial lawyers, and progressive institutions on college campuses.

Even for people who through their own blindness couldn't care less about the plight of working Americans under this decision, the progressive movement as a whole needs to wake up to the fact that these decisions constitute not just an attack on workers, but on progressive politics as a whole.